5 Ways to Train Executives

Designing and implementing an executive education program is not for the inexperienced or faint hearted. What’s so different about executives? Wouldn’t universal training and learning principles apply to them as well as anyone?
To some degree, yes. However, I’d recommend being aware of and paying attention to the following differences:

1. Pace
Generally, executives are very intelligent and can absorb A LOT of complex information very quickly. They also have the attention span of fleas. They have to. Take a look at the typical daily schedule of an executive. Their day is an endless parade of meetings, bouncing around from one topic to another. Most of these meetings involve quickly absorbing information that others have spent weeks or months preparing, and they are expected to make decisions and provide direction. You can’t take a group of individuals out of this kind of environment and expect them to slow down and reflect for endless hours at a time. A few may try to help you out by frantically waving their hand in a circular motion, as if to say “come on, pick it up!”

2. Content
Content needs to be sophisticated, provocative, fresh, and VERY relevant to your business and industry. Executives need to see how what they are being asked to consider will help them accomplish their business objectives. While there may be some that might have a natural sense of intellectual curiosity, most will need to the immediate business relevance or they will tune out. You’ll know this right away when the iPhones and Droids start appearing. They have NO patience for their time being wasted, and will not be shy about letting you know. Why should they? Add up the cost of the hourly salaries for a room full of executives, and you’ll understand why.

3. Competition
Executives are, in general, a competitive bunch. Forget what you were taught about the importance of establishing “a safe learning environment”. They are also – again, in general – very quick to assess and judge.

4. Autonomy
Executives don’t need to be, nor do they like to be told what to do. They are used to making their own decisions and have a high degree of autonomy. They don’t need to be spoon-fed and are used to making up their own rules.

With these principles in mind, here are a few approaches to executive education that companies that are known for world-class executive development are using:

1. Action Learning.
Action learning is probably the most widely used method for internal executive education programs. An action learning program usually consists of the following components:
– The CEO, or a sponsoring senior executive selects a business challenge. The business challenge is usually some strategic issue that the senior team has been wrestling with – some tough nut to crack.
– The program is designed around putting teams of participants together to learn about and develop recommendations to the challenge or challenges.
– Participants are usually current executives or high potentials, identified through the succession planning process.
– Teams are usually provided an internal senior executive sponsor, access to internal and external experts, and a facilitator and/or executive coach.
– Participants have the opportunity to broaden and deepen their business acumen, strengthen their leadership capabilities (influence, presence, leading change), get feedback and coaching, and get a valuable exposure opportunity.
– Organizations can get a significant return on investment by solving a real business challenge, gain insight into their executive talent, and strengthen their team.

Designing and implementing an executive action program is harder than it sounds, so if you’ve never done one, I’d recommend hiring someone with experience to get you started. There are also some good books on action learning.

2. Business simulations
A typical business simulation involves teams of executives running a company, usually competing against each other. Simulations are sometimes computer-based, and some are designed to be run virtually through distance learning. Board games are another option, although often a tough sell for executive sponsors (“What, we’re going to play games?!”).
They can focus on building business skills, behavioral skills, or both.
Simulations can be customized to be company or industry specific.
“Second Life” is an advanced version of a simulation, and if fact, some organizations use it for training purposes.

3. Business War Games
In a business war game, participants are chosen to be on teams representing a company’s primary competitors. Another team represents your own company. Information is gathered about the competition (legally, of course) and the teams face off and play a number of rounds against each other. War games are usually run by an external consultant, although some companies use their own CI (competitive intelligence) teams to design and run the games. While the experience is very educational for participants, the primary purpose is to uncover weaknesses in your own strategy, as well as your competitors. One well known war game expert calls it “competitor appreciate day”.

To learn more, I’d recommend the book “Business War Games”, by Ben Gilad.

4. Executive Team Development
One way for an executive team to work on the “soft stuff” that’s getting in the way of achieving better business results is to improve the way they work together as a team. To accomplish this, an external (or sometimes internal) team development consultant is often engaged. After an initial assessment, the consultant can guide a team through activities and discussions designed to address team behavioral issues identified by the assessment. Sometimes, a concentrated team development effort takes place as part of an off-site retreat.

I’m generally highly skeptical of this kind of activity – I’ve seen way too many of them maybe make the CEO happy, but make everyone else miserable (although they don’t usually admit it). However, in the hands of a highly skilled consultant, and with the right conditions, this kind of work can turn a business around and show dramatic results.

5. Scenario Planning
Like business war gaming, scenario planning is more of a strategy development process than executive education. However, both can be also be educational, in a sneaky kind of way. While there are many variations of scenario planning, they typically involve identifying all of the possible alternative futures around a specific strategy. The process helps executives challenge their assumptions around their industry and develop and test strategies under a variety of plausible futures. Executive teams can then examine those potential alternatives, and build robust contingency plans.

Well run scenario planning sessions can produce high levels of organizational learning and collaboration that wouldn’t normally take place in a traditional strategic planning process.

While these are five of the most common forms of executive education, I’m sure there are more. The best companies for leadership development understand that training does not stop after new employee orientation. Organizations need to be constantly looking for new and improved ways to train their current and future executives.